Primary Liturgical Symbols

Primary Liturgical Symbols

One common practice that has crept into our worship is the layering or multiplication of symbols. For example, I visited a church during Advent which had a wreath surrounded by candles, a banner with candles appliqued on it, the paschal candle and a Christmas crib all crowded together in the small sanctuary.

We live in a culture which assumes that more is better and new is best. When this principle is applied to liturgy, the primary symbols are lost amid a sea of other visuals and extraneous environment competes with ritual.

The primary liturgical symbols are those objects of our faith that have been part of the tradition for many years, 'many' being a lot more than 20! My list of primary symbols would consist of cross, altar, ambo, bread, wine, font, water, oil, paschal candle, Book of Gospels, incense, liturgical colour and vestments. Season ritual symbols such as palms and ashes would be added to this primary list at the proper time.

These symbols demand something from us and call us to deeper faith. They are not decorative accoutrements but are present to support our ritual prayer. They must take priority over everything else in the worship space and anything added to the environment should point towards these symbols, not away from them.

The importance of these primary symbols needs to be reflected in their quality. Each parish should aim to have beautiful pieces which are worthy of carrying the weight of the symbol. This means that parishes will need to budget for good quality furnishing, vestments, and vessels.

The wealth of Jewish faith communities is judged according to the number of Torah scrolls they own. The scrolls must be hand printed on vellum (animal hide) and encased in elaborately decorated velvet covers. Each one is worth thousands of dollars. When a scroll becomes too old and fragile for use in the synagogue, it is reverently buried. Perhaps we have something to learn from this love and respect for objects of worship.

Environment is also a reminder of the paschal mystery of life, death and resurrection. That is why artificial flowers are not suitable for churches. Part of the symbolism of fresh flowers lies in the fact that they fade and die and that we need to appreciate their beauty while it lasts. This applies equally to candles. It has become common practice for parishes to use candles with an oil wick inside them. I can understand why - they always look new and they don't drip wax on the altar cloth. Part of the symbolism of candles, however, is that they burn down, giving us a sense of time passing, of the cycles of the liturgical year, of all the baptisms and funerals that have been celebrated whilst the wax has melted.

The keys to environment that supports ritual are: keep it simple, highlight the primary symbols, use real rather than synthetic materials, aim to acquire the best quality objects and most beautiful symbols the community can afford.


Elizabeth Harrington